If We Want to Save Our Children, We Need to Fight Like Toya Graham

There are many powerful images from the recent Baltimore race riots that left an impression on me. But none more so than the mother who flew into an angry mob of stone-wielding, police-hating students and dragged her son out of the melee, pelting him with her open hand and shouting obscenities along the way.

There’s been a lot written and discussed about Toya Graham, the 39-year-old single mother of six children. Most people have commended Graham for her courage and commitment to disciplining her child. Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said he wished there were more mothers in Baltimore who took charge of their children. Conservatives lauded her as a parenting role model. She has been called a hero and “mother-of-the-year.”

But all these people missed the point.

Toya Graham wasn’t trying to discipline her son. She was trying to save him.

In the moment when Toya Graham saw her son walking toward the police—stone in hand, black hoodie pulled up to half cover his face—she knew that she was the only thing that stood between her son’s life and the fate of Freddie Gray, the man who died in the custody of Baltimore police. She wasn’t thinking about her favorite go-to discipline strategies or the latest parenting techniques. She was fighting for the future, maybe even the life, of her much-loved son.

This is why I like Toya Graham. She fights for her children. No excuses. No reservations. No mercy. America’s children need more parents like Toya Graham. Not because she disciplines her children, but because she loves them enough to fight for them. There’s a difference.

Discipline suggests order, purpose, and restraint. Most of the time, children need discipline. But, occasionally, when times are really tough and desired outcomes critical, children don’t need your discipline. They need you to fight for them.

In America, parents, even good ones, don’t always fight for their children. We persuade, cajole, beg, and nag. Facing the worst of situations for our children, we argue for better circumstances and work the system on their behalf. We are civilized and patient.

Wonder if we “went in swinging” instead? Maybe not literally, but with so much indignation and fervor that we turned every head in the room, including those of our children and the people who control their lives. Wonder if we really fought to make our children’s lives better?

If we did, I think parents could change the world. Instead of developing parenting strategies for a broken system, we could change the system.

The biggest, “baddest” system that needs changing in America is its schools. They are failing in every way. Parents send their children to school for 12+ years to be “educated” and the results are woefully inadequate. And it’s not just the academics. We don’t like the atmosphere, the standards, or the values. We don’t like the lack of choices, the stringent rules, and the institutionalism. We don’t like the high-stakes testing and the incessant homework. We don’t like the bullies, the drugs, and the violence. We don’t like the dress code, or the honor code, or the social code.

But where’s the indignation? Where’s the fight? Shouldn’t we be a lot more upset about the state of America’s schools than what we are?

I have this “what if” dream I like to revisit from time to time related to my oldest son’s experience in public school. It’s a fantasy, really, a dream where I say all the things I should have said and wanted to say (but declined to say) to my son’s teachers when he was struggling with severe anxiety and health issues in school.

Here’s the dream: When my son’s public school teacher assigns him one more piece of irrelevant homework or makes one more ridiculous demand of his time (like missing recess because he dared to stir two foods together on his lunch plate), I say, “no.”

That’s all. “No.”

How come nobody ever says “no” to a school? As a school parent, I never said “no” to a school. As a school teacher, no parent ever said “no” to me. Does anybody even care?

Schools are the place where our children live the majority of their waking lives for the majority of their childhoods. Shouldn’t we be fighting to make them better? Shouldn’t we question more, refuse more, expect more, demand more? Shouldn’t we at least say “no” once in awhile?

I have another dream. In this dream, it’s not just me, but it’s a whole column of angry mothers saying “no” to the schools. All of us look like Toya Graham. We may not be swinging our fists and shouting obscenities, but we are acting with such determination and urgency that the whole world pauses to watch and listen.

If we want to change our schools and save our children, we need to fight like Toya Graham fought for her son on the streets of Baltimore last month.

Until next time…Be fearless.

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Three Internet Articles That Inspired Me Last Week

Recently I read three great Internet articles that inspired me.

In “10 Ways You Are Making Your Homeschool Harder Than it Needs to Be,” Jamie Martin encourages homeschool teachers to avoid 10 negative patterns that most of us fall into from time to time that zap the ease and fun out of homeschooling. Click on this link to the Simple Homeschool blog (one of my favorites) for a dose of inspiration.

Launa Hall, a kindergarten teacher from Arlington, Virginia, wrote an excellent opinion piece for The Washington Post titled “I Pushed My Pre-K Students Toward Reading. And I Feel Guilty About It.” In this article she laments the current focus on academic accomplishment in early childhood education and points to the well-documented benefits of childhood play instead.

Finally, Dr. Scott McLeod, who blogs at Dangerously Irrelevant (another favorite of mine) recently reposted an article by Alfie Kohn. Kohn is a “progressive educator” whose ideas may not always match mine, but they never cease to make me think. Read here for “12 Education Guidelines from Alfie Post.”

Until next time…Be fearless.

Why My Children Do Not Take Standardized Tests

I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing of school children.

As a public school teacher, I was required to administer standardized tests. They took a week to administer and then parents worried about them for months. My school staff became very good at preparing students for the tests in efforts to improve test scores and, therefore, minimize parental and societal anxieties.

When I started homeschooling my own children, I was conflicted the first (and only) time I administered standardized tests. I was understandably curious to see how my children would stack up against their peers. But I couldn’t decide whether I should prepare them for the tests or not. On the one hand, I wanted to see how much academic information my children had retained in long-term memory (which is really the only thing standardized tests measure at the elementary level.) On the other hand, I knew their percentile scores would be skewed if I didn’t prepare my children for the test in the same way that school children are prepared. After all, in schools, the testing dates and the entire flow of curriculums are often aligned to give children the best chance of doing well on the tests.

In the end, I decided to simply administer the standardized test without preparation to my two elementary-aged children and see what happened.

Here’s what happened: Nothing. There were no surprises. Anywhere. I learned nothing I didn’t already know. My child who was excellent at memorizing information did well on the test across the board, with little differentiation between subjects. My child who was not good at memorizing did fair on the test across the board, with little differentiation between subjects.

That was the last time I gave standardized tests to my children. Today, both of these children have graduated from my homeschool and from college. Both have good, well-paying jobs and a start on meaningful careers. The “excellent tester” and the “fair tester” are equally successful.

Three Reasons Not to Administer Standardized Tests in Your Homeschool

1. Standardized Tests Have Limited Purpose

Standardized tests primarily measure how well your child can memorize and store isolated bits of information in long-term memory. In the past, this skill was necessary for school and work, but this is not the case anymore. With the advent of the Internet, computer applications, and portable devices that can keep all the information you will ever need at your fingertips, jobs now demand workers who can utilize and apply information, not simply regurgitate it. Colleges have followed suit by refocusing their classes and career preparation programs. Therefore, the skills measured by standardized tests are no longer needed.

2. Standardized Tests Will Only Tell Good Teachers What They Already Know

Whether administering standardized tests to public school children or my own children, the results rarely told me things I didn’t already know. Since traditional curriculums are standardized themselves, a standardized test will usually reflect how a child is doing in his daily work. Even if traditional education tools are not utilized, most good teachers, even public school teachers with large classes, know far more about the strengths and weakness of their students than what a standardized test can measure.

3. Standardized Tests Tempt Teachers to Change the Focus of Their Teaching

When teachers choose standardized tests as a measurement tool they almost always choose standardized curriculums as their teaching method. This is called “teaching to the test.” It’s inevitable because it makes sense. If you are going to administer a big math test, you don’t spend all your study time preparing for a science test. If you want to take your driver’s test, you don’t spend your preparation time riding your bicycle. If you are going to use a standardized test to measure your homeschool, you will naturally use it as a guide to determine the content of your homeschool.

Homeschool parents should shelve the standardized tests and keep their focus on promoting higher thinking and learning skills than those measured by standardized tests. While public schools are often required to administer these tests and private schools feel the pressure to utilize them to “sell” their schools, home schools can avoid them altogether. When they don’t, they are choosing to restrict their own freedom and ability to educate their children well because they are using a flawed standard of measurement to set the course for their homeschool.

Even our legal system has recognized the necessary and fundamental right of homeschooling families to educate their children as they see fit, free from most of the expectations placed on public schools. It’s remarkable, really, that in an era when such massive amounts of accountability and high stakes testing is required of public school children that private schools and home schools remain relatively free of such demands. Most states require no testing of homeschoolers at all. Of those that do, few states use the results to force immediate changes in home schools. Some states don’t even ask to see the test results.

Homeschool teachers should take full advantage of the academic freedoms they have been given. Skip the standardized tests and build smart, motivated and creative learners for the future instead.

Until next time…Be fearless.

One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week (Inspiring Children to Become “People Who Matter”)

For the past three months, my husband and I have been leading a large group, high school seminar class at our local homeschool cooperative called “People Who Matter.” During that one hour every Thursday afternoon, we have an invited guest share an important story. Most of our guests are very prominent, while others are regular citizens who share personal experiences that will have a special impact on our students.

For three months, I’ve sat riveted to my chair as truly outstanding individuals share motivating messages. From professional athletes to U.S. Congressmen, each guest has shared inspiring stories of dedication, work ethic, and sacrifice. henry

This past Thursday, Heather French Henry, a former Miss America and the current Kentucky Commissioner of Veterans Affairs, shared how she worked for half a decade to become Miss America (she won after five tries at Miss Kentucky) and then worked for 15 straight years to implement her platform on behalf of homeless veterans. That’s Commissioner Henry in the photo at right, placing her Miss America crown on my head!

Commissioner Henry’s story is just one of many inspiring stories we have heard this semester. We listened to Doug Flynn explain how he attended a professional baseball tryout on a dare from friends and ended up with a long, award-winning career playing for the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Mets. We heard former Lexington, KY Police Chief (and mayoral candidate) Anthany Beauty tell what it was like to be the first African-American student in a white middle school following court-ordered desegregation in the 60’s And what he would do if he was the police chief of Ferguson, Missouri. Also on tap: University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, U.S. Congressman Andy Barr, megachurch pastor Jon Weece, and more.

The opportunity for our students to hear and rub shoulders with such accomplished and inspiring people in a classroom setting is a rare opportunity. Traditional schools do not have the will or a structure in place to do it. The ability to think outside the educational box and craft lessons that truly inspire and teach children are a unique advantage of homeschooling.

As my children age I become more and more convinced that traditional means of education and content-laden school lessons bear little fruit for children. What comes shining through in the end as three of the most important byproducts of homeschooling are older teens and young adults who exhibit motivation, perspiration, and dedication. These are the x-factors that will drive people to do well in college, work, and life. Without them, most efforts fall short.

That’s why on Thursday afternoons I make sure my daughters are in attendance to hear the guests in the “People Who Matter” class. While other students float in and out with sporadic attendance and questionable interest, I make sure my girls are sitting front and center. Their attendance is not contingent on whether they have finished their other school work for the day. Or completed their chores. Or whether they feel tip-top. Or have a full afternoon and evening of other activities. My commitment to getting my children to that class is a window into what I believe is important in education.

For me, homeschooling isn’t a regimented schedule or list of assignments. I don’t begin the year with a check off list of lessons and curriculum and then strive for the moment when I can place all the checks in their appropriate boxes. Math? Check. History? Check. Science? Check.

Instead, I search for life-changing experiences and teachable moments. That’s why I like sports more than science, travel and field trips more than social studies, and the “People Who Matter” class more than math. Rather than taking responsibility for teaching my children everything they need to know, I’m trying to lead them to a point where they can and will take responsibility for teaching themselves. When I let their hands go, I want my children to have the character and desire in place to keep on learning for a lifetime and being “people who matter” to the people around them.

Until next time…Be fearless.

The Day My Town Discovered Homeschooling

Something funny happened in my town this winter. In the midst of one of the snowiest and coldest winters on record in Kentucky, my town discovered homeschooling.

Called “e-learning days,” the local school system found that, in inclement weather, students can stay home and still accomplish a day of school. Students simply log onto their computers in the morning to get their assignments. Teachers, also working from home, remain available throughout the day to answer student questions online. It’s a win-win for everyone. Days are not wasted, money is saved, and students do not need to attend school way into the summer months.

This idea of e-learning days is being tested in thousands of school districts across the country. Each district handles the details a little differently, but the bottom line remains the same: At a time in history when people can and do almost anything via the Internet, homeschooling works.

Public school e-learning days are teaching everyone a lesson about homeschooling. Students and parents who find they enjoy e-leaning days are more likely to consider homeschooling as a viable option in the future. On the other side of the coin, school districts who find they can save time and money through home-based, online learning may determine they are not so raptly opposed to homeschooling after all.

Therefore, I see changes on the horizon.

Here’s what I think is going to happen: As the extent and quality of online education at an affordable price continues to increase, families and school districts alike are going to take advantage of it.

Families who have always wanted to homeschool, but didn’t think they could, either because of cost or ability, now have expanded options. All kinds of online education programs are available, from those that offer minimal online assistance to extensive programs that hold the hands of students at every turn. Homeschooling has never been easier.

But the greatest sea change of thought and practice will probably occur inside traditional schools, where a hybrid of traditional schooling and homeschooling will likely take place. It may not happen tomorrow, next week, or even next year. But it’s coming sooner than you think. And it will be a good thing.

The likelihood of hybrid schooling where teacher-directed learning and parent-directed learning mix together is due to a number of concerns bearing down on local school systems right now. They are:

1. Cost
Schools need money and they need lots of it. The biggest outlay of money is for teachers. When online classes are offered, more students can be placed in each class. This saves school systems money in labor costs. If students also periodically work from home, there are also reductions in the cost of facility, furniture, utilities, transportation, support personnel, and more.
2. Choice
No one can deny that parents want “choice” when it comes to education. The proliferation of online programming gives school systems the option of providing choice. More than one online learning program could be offered in schools, depending on students’ learning styles or interests. A variety of teachers could be offered. Students could also have the choice of learning from school or home, or switching between the two based on the needs of the moment. If school systems would honor the need and desire of parents to have choice, they would make it difficult for families to leave the system.

3. Relevance
Most American work is now done online. Most American colleges have acknowledged this and have made changes, albeit slowly. When public school systems follow suit, more parents will be impressed with the attempt to make schools more relevant to students.

4. Excellence
The beauty of online programs and teachers is that they must compete with each other to capture the time and money of families. While classroom teachers have a captive audience and not much incentive to get better at what they do, online teachers must prove themselves to be better than all the many other online options. A dynamic teacher and a great program will survive. All others will fade away, as they well should. School systems can and should take advantage of this online dynamic, or families will proceed in that direction on their own.

The hybrid homeschool/traditional school offers options similar to those available in modern supermarkets. Some people still like the personal service of the conventional checkout lane, where checking out groceries is so easy customers can read their email on their cell phones while they wait. Others like the self-checkout lanes, where it can take more time and attention to check out groceries, but shoppers have more control over the process and can keep a closer eye on what is going on. However, the vast majority of customers like to switch between the two options. They like the flexibility and customization of the self-serve registers at some times, and the speed and personal assistance of conventional registers at others.

The same is true in education. There will always be public school parents who want schools to do it all for them. And there will always be homeschool parents who don’t want the schools to be involved at all. But the majority of parents want something in the middle, choices they can make for the betterment of their children and their families, based on their needs and desires at that moment in time.

Hopefully, the current experimentation being done with e-learning days will demonstrate to school districts they can offer more choice, relevance, and excellence to students, and also save money at the same time. If so, a hybrid of homeschooling and conventional schooling could be here soon.

Until next time…Be fearless.

Building a Better Brain With Video Games

Parents and teachers have been bemoaning the ill-effects of video games for decades. Now we know they were wrong all along.

If you haven’t read the emerging research, you might want to take a look. Dr., Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, wrote about it last week in a great article in Psychology Today. Popular business and education blogger Penelope Trunk has discussed it often.  A google search of “positive effects of video games” turns up numerous articles written in reputable publications, such as Forbes, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and a host of other news magazines, education periodicals, and psychology journals.

None of this surprises me. My kids play video games so I know what they are. I blog about education so I know how children learn. There’s a direct correlation between the two.

In all fairness, it’s been only recently that neuroscience has delivered proof about how the brain learns. Instead of conjecture, sophisticated imaging techniques now show how the brain changes and grows when learning occurs. Scientists can physically observe and measure neural pathways expanding as people learn new things.

Still, could parents and teachers not have figured this out for themselves? When children enter the video game world they are involved in and interacting with quickly changing parameters and dynamics. They must assess situations, make quick decisions, use a variety of senses, and constantly be forming and testing new ideas and strategies.

Why is anyone surprised that all the current research—almost every shred of it—shows the affects of video games to be almost entirely positive?

Please allow me to take a crack at that answer. For the past 100 years, we’ve allowed traditional educators and the politicians who support them to control the discussion about learning. Even educational studies and research have been set up to try to validate a certain style of instruction. It’s a type of rationalization that cognitive scientists call “motivated reasoning.” The purpose is to legitimize an educational system that can be easily administered by the 3+ million people who make a living off of it.

Parents and the general public have been hoodwinked, but it happened with our eyes wide open. We (parents) have applied our own style of “motivated reasoning” to feel good about sending our children off to school for 12 years of their lives, which provides us with an easy and relatively cheap way of raising and teaching our kids. We try not to think too much about how horribly ineffective schools are as a place for proper living and learning. If we don’t think about it, or read about it, or study it, or listen to people who know what they are talking about, then we don’t have to embrace what we all know to be true: Formal education yields way too little results for such a big investment of time, while real-time learning with purpose is not only efficient in the moment, but effective in the long-term.

Last year, my 16-year-old daughter, Roxanna, hit a wall in her studies and in her personal life. She was taking a couple of academic classes outside the home, as well as trying to keep up with a busy activity schedule.

She needed to take a step back. So we cut out some activities and dropped the classes. In fact, for a couple of months, she just relaxed.

During that time, Roxanna took up Minecraft. She played it every day, sometimes for hours on end. I didn’t know that much about it, so I started watching her. Here’s what I learned:

Kids don’t just play Minecraft. They create it. And then they manipulate it. Decision making, problem solving, strategy forming—it’s all there. And it’s individualized to skills and interests and even customizable for parents and teachers should they want to jump in the fray. You can read about the benefits or Minecraft here and here and here and here. And all over the Internet, if you care to look.

As I sat watching my daughter play Minecraft, it occurred to me that she was involved in far more real and lasting learning than what she had given up by dropping her academic classes. She may not be able to define certain words or describe certain processes — things that would probably be long forgotten before she was ever asked to regurgitate the information— but her brain was growing and her “executive function” (the management and execution of cognitive processes) along with it. Score one for the video game revolution!

As video game research becomes more prominent and indisputable, look for schools to jump on the bandwagon and begin to employ video games to teach in the classroom. But don’t be fooled yet again. If schools use video games simply to teach the same old formal school lessons and deliver on the same old content-laden, scholastic goals (as demanded by Common Core and the other political educational directives of the moment), all the intrinsic value of video gaming will be lost. If the emphasis is simply on content delivery, video games will be no more effective than a glossy textbook or an educational board game.

Video games are best when they are open ended, player directed, and focused on stimulating thought and creativity. This is the stuff from which brains are built. Narrowing the scope or defining the mission destroys the intellectual benefit.

So, tomorrow, when your homeschooled kids roll out of bed and tackle a new day of life and learning, turn on the television and set up the game console. Effective brain building and learning awaits!

Until next time…Be fearless.

Replacing a Teacher’s Need to Teach With a Child’s Desire to Learn

I’ve always been a planner and a bit of a control freak. I like to figure things out and then analyze what I’ve done. I then like to tweak my original plan and do something better than what I’ve done before. This process turns me on. I’m pretty good at it.

As a school teacher, I always enjoyed developing the lesson plans more than executing them. As a homeschool teacher, I disliked textbooks and full curriculums because they robbed me of the opportunity to be creative and in control of my child’s learning.

That’s why it hasn’t been easy for me to set aside everything I know and love about teaching in order to establish a more natural learning environment for my children.

In fact, it took me more than 20 years to figure it out: Creating a successful and happy learning environment in my home is not about what I do, but what I don’t do. It involves stripping away pre-determined expectations and setting aside pre-conceived notions. It’s about replacing my need to teach in favor of letting my children learn. I have to trust the process and I have to trust my children.

Let me clarify. When I speak of trusting children to learn, I’m not referring to their ability to follow directions, complete every assignment, or pass every test. But, what I do trust is that children of average ability can and will learn almost anything, if they have the desire and the will to do it. They may not want to learn exactly what I want them to learn and they may not want to learn it according to my timetable. But the natural learning and maturation process enables almost every child to turn their attention to the right things at the right time in order to achieve personal success. Research and history prove it. And our own common sense knows it.

The folly of our current system of education is there is zero trust in children to take responsibility for learning at the needed time and place. We decide we can’t trust a student to learn how to write a research paper in college so we begin teaching him how to write one in elementary school. Because we don’t trust our children to be able to figure out math “in the real world,” we start subjecting them to difficult mathematical word and story problems when they are barely out of kindergarten.

The 12-year process of preparing children for any academic eventuality so we don’t need to trust them to properly navigate college and career later on is insane. Science, history, social studies, geography, and math lessons are introduced, re-introduced, repeated, reiterated, and re-enforced year after year. Reading and writing is deconstructed and then taught in isolated, bite-sized parts we can begin pounding into the minds of young children, even though they won’t have any real interest in writing stories or reading books until much later on. We prepare kindergartners so they can do well in elementary school, so they can do well in middle school, so they can do well in high school, so they can do well in college, so they can do well in career.
It’s an absurd process predicated on the belief that people can’t handle an academic or career challenge unless they have been armed ahead of time with a deep well of knowledge to draw upon. It presumes that people will wilt under the pressure of having to find solutions and it assumes they have no means by which to do so.
All the while, informed people who know what they are talking about—people who research and study learning, people like educational psychologists and neuroscientists—tell us without reservation or exception that the human brain has almost unlimited capacity to learn new things when a need or desire is present. And little capacity to store (and then retrieve) information when that need or desire is missing.

In other words, we spend 12 years forcing an ineffective system of information recall on school children when creating a natural learning environment that produces interested and motivated learners is far more effective.

The day I set my own preconceived (and ill-conceived) notions about teaching aside in favor of the truth about how children really learn is the day our homeschool took an 180-degree turn for the better. It hasn’t been easy to be patient and trust my children and the process. But it gets easier every day.

Because it has become increasingly obvious to me that natural learning works. While teaching — at least in the traditional sense — doesn’t.

Until next time…Be fearless.